All Things Entertaining and Cultural
Seeing a rare piece, one you never expected to see, is treat enough, but the Idiopathic Ridiculopathy Consortium (IRC)’s production of Jean Giraudoux’s “Ondine” goes beyond a treat to become a luscious confection.
“Ondine” is a constant and engaging delight. Director Aaron Cromie takes a witty and whimsical fairy tale approach to Giraudoux’s take on a German folk legend about a beautiful water nymph who falls in love with an equally comely knight of the royal court and risks the happiness of both, and their lives, by disobeying strict boundaries and daring to foment an affair between an immortal and a human, an anathema to both species .
Keeping the pace, tone, and look, and spirit of his production in the style of a myth, Cromie elicits all the charm, grace, humor, and liveliness in Giraudoux’s play while giving the irrepressible character of Ondine, played irrepressibly by the vivacious Ama Bollinger, generous opportunity to display her ingenuousness and candor and clearly articulating all the playwright has to say about attraction, love, fidelity, and sacrifice.
“Ondine” is full of fancy, and the IRC staging captures every bit of it. Magic is integral to the piece. It hastens and enhances the action rather than being a handy antidote for straightening out confused or troubled characters’ lives. Creativity also abounds. In addition to directing, Cromie has designed puppets and shadow plays that enrich the theatrical creativity of his storytelling. Lisi Stoessel’s sets and Jill Keys’s costumes are witty and evocative. As “Ondine” opens, Stoessel places us in a pure Hansel-and-Gretel-type cottage in an enchanted wood where Ondine lives with her family. Keys is particularly canny in fashioning a a gown that incorporates the colors and currents of water for Ondine to wear when her lover, Hans, introduces her at court. A later scene features a garment made, as the play demands, of netting, and Keys and Bollinger conspire to make it not only clever but sensuous and alluring. There isn’t an element in the IRC production that doesn’t work or contribute to the overall realization of Giraudoux’s play. Even scenes that could become muddy or convoluted, such as the deliberations of the judges who must determine whether Ondine is supernatural and used sorcery to entice Hans, a mortal human, to love her, have a comic lilt that keeps them amiably enjoyable and prevents them from being ponderous. Cromie and IRC took a difficult work and made it as sweet, airy, funny, and accessible as Bollinger’s Ondine is. It is not only a boon that IRC allowed its audience to see a work that hasn’t had a major revival since Leslie Caron played Ondine in London in the 1960s. (Audrey Hepburn earned a Tony for it in 1954.)This production makes catching up with “Ondine” a privilege and a pleasure.
From the moment you hear about Ondine, you know she is not the average 18-year-old. Even though she lives in a forest and may be, as happens in most folk tales, at one with nature, Ondine goes beyond the usual fictional country girl’s appreciation of flora and fauna. As actions begins, she is frisking about outside in a torrential storm, much to the chagrin of her mother and father, Eugenie and Auguste, and while they have no reason to fear Ondine will be injured or made ill by the deluge, they would prefer her to give up her frolicking the in the rain and come in for dinner.
Instead they receive a visitor, a hungry visitor, Hans, a knight of noble von Wittenstein lineage, who has been sent on a month-long retreat to the woods by his fiancée, Berthe, the king’s daughter, to allegedly learn about life and survival and to return to her more capable at managing the unexpected and more appreciative of the civilization to be found at the royal court. Hans worries about Ondine being outdoors in such foul weather, but Auguste assures him Ondine is not in the storm but that she is the storm.
Auguste goes no further, but we learn he is being literal. Ondine is just as much a princess as Berthe. Her domain is the water, and she is composed of water. Powers she possesses allow her to take corporal form as an eternally young and dazzling human girl who admires the ways of humankind and, when she chooses, lives in the cottage and shares a convention country life with Auguste and Eugenie who regard as their daughter. Bollinger, though slight in build, makes Ondone larger than life. She whirls into her land parents’ home, declares her satisfaction with the storm she produced, relates conversations she had with fish and other creatures, and is immediately attracted and undividedly attentive to Hans, who betrothed or not, returns the compliment.
Mischief is now afoot. Ondine, though living simultaneously as a nymph and the child in a human family, is all supernatural and thereby forbidden to commune romantically with a human by the powers that rule her kind, the hierarchy of the sea world. The penalty for loving a human is high. It can mean the loss of all magical ability and to being vulnerable to human frailties and emotions, including jealousy or loving someone so much you are willing to submerge your own joy or desires to insure his or her happiness.
When we, and Hans, meet Ondine, she is as fiery and animated as a storm. She doesn’t walk. She dances or leaps. She doesn’t converse. She talks excitedly and engages all around her in her enthusiasm. Seeing Hans, a man every bit as lovely as she is, Ondine is immediately smitten and immediately flirtatious. Being clairvoyant, she predicts their marriage and the obstacles that will threaten to make life together impossible.
Hans is nonplused. He too is taken by this marvelous creature who exudes nature but has the form of a magnificently gorgeous human. Of course, he remembers Berthe and his quest. Hans is traditional and trained in chivalry and the rites of courtly love. For all the knightly discipline he tries to muster, he cannot resist Ondine. She is too much a novelty, a peripatetic sprite who enchants with her wide-eyed openness and tsunami of gay and effervescent chatter.
Hans, as portrayed by handsome, clear-eyed, white-toothed, silk-haired, and nobly postured Andrew Carroll is as robust and solid as Bollinger’s Ondine is pixie-like and ephemeral. Carroll and Bollinger make a splendid couple, and Hans and Ondine see traits each cherishes in one another. Theirs is love at first sight, and though both realize the complications their union will undoubtedly cause, neither can resist the lure of the other. Hans is able to put practical matters, such as marriage and the Wittenstein family social position at court, aside. Ondine wants to be airy and mystical only for Hans. The couple may not envision happiness before them, but they sense adventure and are aware of the undeniable and inescapable attraction and affection between them. As the song says, something’s gotta give.
Eugenie and Auguste are wary. They treat Ondine as a daughter and raise her as such, but they know she is beyond their control. Auguste is wise and philosophical with a self-effacing way about discussing everything from current events to his daughter and himself. Eugenie is the good wife who also has a wry way of looking at the world and regarding its everyday duties. Jerry Puma and Tina Brock play these characters with comic aplomb, holding a line between being cartoonlike in approach to being ineluctably human and astute enough to see the levity in daily routines and in trying to contain the willful Ondine.
Puma and Brock show their characters may live in the woods and have a simple existence, but they are smart and realistic and have learned a lot about to put their lives into perspective.
Brock will also excel as the King, Berthe’s father, who shows a lot of humanity and wisdom in a scene in which his majesty has dismissed all other courtiers and talks sincerely and paternally to Ondine about important worldly matters, love and obligation among them.
Before the king makes his entrance, the court is abuzz with the arrival of Ondine and curiosity about what will happen when she encounters Berthe and, more importantly, what will transpire when Hans and Berthe meet for the first time since the princess sent him to the pilgrimage during which he met and fell in love with Ondine.
Robb Hunter is amusing as the Lord Chamberlain who has to plan Ondine’s introduction to the court and some tangential entertainment for the king. His dilemma in that regard is solved by an illusionist, one the audience will recognize as a different character from earlier in the play, who offers to beguile the assembly with visions of the future. He immediately jumps ahead in time to show exactly what happens when Ondine, Hans, and Berthe intersect. In addition to being entertaining, the illusionist’s visions allow Giraudoux to efficiently and engagingly move his story forward, a very clever bit of playwriting.
Sarah Knittel is marvelous as Berthe, who is immediately likeable in a way far different from Ondine. Berthe is grounded and down-to-earth. She doesn’t quite know how she lost the affection of Hans, but she is no evil harridan the audience can hiss and boo. On the contrary, Berthe seems a logical and happy choice for Hans. She is so sensible while also being funny and never priggish or prudish. Giraudoux did not write a play where the jilted princess deserves to be discarded in favor of a refreshing new love. No one can compare with Ondine, but Knittel, as Berthe, lets you see how good a life Hans could have had with her, a quiet, unassuming princess who, of course, has moments of jealousy and spite, but who, in general, is calm within herself and realistic about her life.
Susan Giddings, with fu man chu mustaches hanging from her nostrils and spilling over her lips and mouth and a long goatee gathered with a rubber band at its tip, is the soul of both magic and wisdom as the illusionist. She not only captures the attention of the Lord Chamberlain and his minions. She mesmerizes the IRC audience. We enjoy seeing the scenes she produces and revel in the encounters of the three young people caught in a romantic triangle with Hans at the top point and Ondine and Berthe vying for him from the corners. We are also amused by knowing Giddings’s motives as the illusionist.
“Ondine” is a tale about both wisdom and trust in love. In the folk legend, Ondine asks Hans to promise he will love her for as long as he has breath in his body. Hans agrees to the pledge. When Hans deceives Ondine who catches him laying next to Berthe, she uses her mystical powers to stop his breath and Hans dies.
Giraudoux veers from this narrative in several significant ways. His purpose is not to tell the Ondine legend with fidelity but use it to expound on what the basic tale, a sea nymph uniting with a human mortal, says about love at first sight and existence thereafter. In his play, the conflicts and resolutions are not as tidy or clear-cut. Ondine, sensing she doesn’t belong in the courtly world of the palace where Hans and Berthe both fit so easily, disappears and stays away for five years, returning on the day when Hans and Berthe are scheduled to wed.
In her absence, Ondine has spread a rumor, a confession of sorts, that somewhat explains her running away and that haunts Hans’s consciousness. On the day of Hans’s wedding, Ondine is caught by fisherman, is brought to trail in chains and wearing only the net in which she was trapped. A trial ensues, in which Giraudoux can make points about the nature of love, faithfulness, and sacrifice. Though interesting of serious content, these views do not deflate the spirit of the IRC production. Cromie is careful to keep them consistently with the comic tone he has established, and they serve to explain Ondine’s motives for events she’s wrought and lead to an ending.
Cromie’s production has a brightness and cheerfulness about it that makes you wish more Girardoux, Christopher Fry,and Jean Anouilh were performed. Theater revivals are serial, so these playwrights will probably have their day after London’s National Theatre or Donmar Warehouse have a success with one of their works, but until then, IRC has made us a gift of this staging of “Ondine.”
Ama Bollinger is all vim and dynamism in the title role. She is so kinetic, she makes you think of the laws of inertia regarding bodies in motion.
Every time Bollinger appears, even when Ondine is in chains, she brings an air of energy and excitement. Her light French accent adds to her and Ondine’s charm. In some sequences, the actress’s energy affects the speed of her speech, but every talking in rapid fire, she is comprehensible.
Bollinger’s short blond hair, that looks as if it’s taking off in a breeze, and her lithe, diminutive figure help create the impression that Ondine is a creature of the elements, a sylph that glides through its environment. Among her fine achievements as Ondine, is the naturalness with which Bollinger conveys the naïve honesty of a character who cannot censor her thoughts and says all that is on her mind whether she is speaking to other sea spirits or the king.
Andrew Carroll is deft at playing the double-edged nature of Hans. He arrives at Auguste and Eugenie’s cottage as a brave and stalwart soldier, confident in war and sheathed in armor that he needs help to remove. He also arrives as a boy, callow in love as he is experienced in the manly arts of battle. You sense his naivete and reliance on courtly manners and his pride on the merging of two great houses when he, a Wittenstein, marries Berthe, a royal princess, but know he is yet a lad when it comes to constancy.
Throughout the play, Carroll has to play the ambivalence of Hans, who sees the virtue in both of the women he loves. In general, he has made up his mind about which he would choose to be with for eternity, but complications keep erupting, and Hans, rooted more in reality than in the random world of Ondine, spends a lot of time being bewildered.
Carroll can play the man of substance, the boy who is smitten in spite of his commitment to another, and the boy-man who is often thrown into confusion by the events around him and particularly who the women, two sides of a coin, he sincerely loves.
Susan Giddings is solid throughout, always maintaining the tone of a fairy tale wizard and always working to put a realistic perspective on something that is as mystical as it is rooted in earth.
Tina Brock is a comic delight as Eugenie, the voice of benevolent wisdom as the king, and the dervish of a servant who walks around people bowing three times before she leaves their presence.
Jerry Puma sets the pace for Cromie’s production as Auguste, who must welcome Hans and prepare us for Ondine. Puma’s is a witty performance,
Robb Hutter is properly flummoxed as the Chamberlain who must produce an entertainment with almost no resources at hand beyond a music director who wants to mount the umpteenth consecutive performance of “Salambo,” a suggestion that gets groans from the courtiers but encourages two singers, represented by puppets, to warble beautifully.
Sarah Knittel is so demure and so sensible and unaffected as Berthe, she enchants in a different way from Bollinger.
Knittel’s is a canny, well judged performance that takes a lot of poise and self-possession to achieve. Her Berthe is the rock of reality and relative quiet in a world Ondine turns stormy, and Knittel earns appreciation for accomplishing that.
“Ondine” runs through Sunday, March 2, in the fifth-floor black box space at the Walnut Street Theatre, 9th and Walnut Streets, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m Tuesday to Saturday and 2 p.m. on Sunday. Tickets range from $22 to $15 and can be obtained by calling 215-285-0472 or going online to www.brownpapertickets.com.